In order to prosper, first we must suffer. So runs an essential element of Antonio Conte’s core philosophy. His total devotion to winning is intrinsic to his every word and action and his squad are undoubtedly working hard to embody his vision. After the win at Forest where the team withstood extended periods of concerted pressure, he said they are learning to suffer together.
In Conte’s world, that’s a good thing, demonstrating their resilience and spirit, and we’re all part of Conte’s world now. Therefore, we suffer too, and what journalist Raph Honigstein called Conte’s ‘sufferball’ has been a tough watch at times. We had better get used to it. That’s fine – this is the process, this is what he does, and we’re unbeaten without playing especially well coming forward and with last season’s leading scorer right off the pace. This is progress, and it’s a platform for further development. I had hoped we would be playing better at this point but satisfied in that there is plenty more to come.
It’s long been clear that if we are to get anywhere this season, it will be down to our defensive solidity. We can now see the Saints romp for what it is, the outlier rather than the norm. It’s been a tough watch, though. He’s the pro. I admire his faith in his methods and in his defenders, and I’m learning to trust them too as they drop back and block.
But here’s the difference between the pro and the fan. He and I come to this with different experiences. Conte has unshakable confidence in his system and in his defenders to implement it. I’m a Spurs fan. I expect things not to turn out as we expect or hope. He knows Forest can weave patterns in front of our defence while rarely getting in behind, where it hurts. To gain all their possession they did so by sacrificing a central focal point that a striker would offer, hence they are less dangerous. I think every shot is bound to go in via two deflections, the post and a header off the ball-boy unaccountably missed by the ref, his assistants and 37 cameras.
So judge sufferball under Conte’s terms, and thereby suffer less. I understand what he’s doing and appreciate the advances made by our defenders. The central back three have been good, by and large. We defend well in the box. Ben gets his toe in more often than not, Dier is a sound defensive pivot and Romero is a fine defender. We are less good if pulled out of shape. Sanchez has defended stoutly in the box since he came into the side but pull him out of his safety zone, as W Ham targeted our right side, and he becomes shaky, as well as restricting our play out from the back. Hojbjerg divides opinion: I think he’s been excellent this season, tireless and focussed, covering at the back and scavenging for loose balls in the middle of the park. Bentancur’s status rose in his absence against W Ham where we sorely missed his calm, unfussy (and often unnoticed) interventions, reliable passing and smooth work on the ball.
Conte’s method depends on reliability. On Wednesday, Hugo celebrated his decade at the club with the sort of wobbly performance he seemed to have eradicated from his game since Conte arrived. It spread uncertainty whenever we tried to play out, which became worse as the game went on. His crass error gifted the ball to the Hammers, which they duly and deftly exploited for their equaliser, just when Spurs had spent the first 10 minutes of the second half painstakingly doing absolutely nothing in order to take the heat out of any W Ham revival.
The distraction caused by Hojbjerg’s boot wasn’t the problem. Our opponents were going nowhere. Unable to find their way from within, they needed an external boost, firstly from the penalty disallowed by VAR, correctly because the ball hit Cresswell’s face first, then from our error. It could, should have proved costly. We failed to exploit their open midfield and they should have taken one of their late chances.
That said, these errors have been few and far between this year and it is one of Conte’s achievements that thankfully Spurs tend to make few mistakes at the back. Like Aurier, the full-back rejected in his favour, Emerson has improved his game but like his predecessor, he cannot be relied upon when under pressure. Wing backs are crucial in Conte’s system and as a source of creativity Emerson is not up to the standard required, especially without Romero beside him. I like the way Conte gives his players time without chopping and changing constantly but it’s time to try Doherty or Spence.
Getting the ball forward has also become a problem. Up front, Sonny is going through one of his lean spells. He’s always had them, up until last season anyway, but this one is painful. Harry is scoring but he’s off it too. The tell-tale signs are there, taking an extra touch, marginally off-balance when he shoots, slightly scuffing shots. But they will come good. The poor progression out from the back is a more serious problem, though. We can’t play easily out of a high press and in the middle, opponents have learned to isolate our man on the ball, and possession is lost. We must improve here.
If Bissouma improves at the same rate as he did on Wednesday from the first half to the second, he will prove to be a valuable influence. We need more creativity but that doesn’t have to come from a purely creative midfielder. Which is where we return to the wing-backs, not offering enough at present.
So it comes back to supporters and our expectations. We have the right to want the best. We’ve seen substantial progress, but must accept that the pace of change is slower than we anticipated when we trashed Norwich on the final day of last season.
Conte knows it. He now has to work with what he’s got. We had a decent window, it’s just that most of it took place by the end of July, not on September 1st. He’s said it will take a couple more windows to get the squad to the standard he expects, positive in itself because it implies he’s planning to stay for a while longer. If the players we wanted were not available, then it’s right not to waste money on players of a quality no better than what we have now. However, with Spurs there’s always the lingering feeling that we did not push hard enough or offer enough money for those key players. That’s an inescapable part of Levy’s tenure.
We won’t ever know. Based on reliable journalists, our real focus was a top-class left sided centre-back, we couldn’t get our first choices but Lenglet should be decent. Our late attention to Daniel James seems odd, hardly the upgrade I’ve assumed Conte seeks. However, it implies he wants the option of pace and direct one-on-one play. Time to see more of Gil or Spence, who is quick and powerful with the ability to unsettle defences if he comes from deep, even starting in front of the wingback as he did for a few minutes at Forest.
In other news: Richarlison did keepie-uppies and took the whatsit – I laughed. He got done – I laughed. That’s what should have happened. But then I don’t earn a living from keeping a non-debate going incessantly.
On twitter this morning, @Lilywhite_Rose who follows our development of young players closely, bemoans the lack of loans and therefore gametime experience for most of our promising young players, Scarlett and Parrott excepted. This seems a waste.
VAR is useless number 34449948423 in a never-ending series. There is no reason why that penalty decision took over 4 minutes when all the relevant information was available after three or four replays. It takes far more from the game that it offers. Bin it.
In the meantime, incremental change. Get the front three going and goals will come. Get Perisic settled, try something new on the right. If this is suffering, I’ll take it.